Oscar nominations will be announced next Thursday, January 10th. Some of the categories are less of a mystery than others because finalists have already been announced. Jewish themes are often present in two such races, Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary. This year, however, another field with predetermined contenders has a film with remarkably unsubtle Jewish overtones. Among the twenty-one films deemed eligible for Best Animated Feature is The Rabbi’s Cat, a film with an unmistakable and highly curious focus.
Based on the popular 2002 graphic novel, which has been described as a mix of Voltaire, Jewish Algerian culture, and Albert Cohen, The Rabbi’s Cat is not your typical Oscar-friendly animated feature. Joann Sfar adapted his own work to create this eccentric and entertaining feature film, which is recommended for ages thirteen and up. The fantastical tale follows the loyal cat of an Algerian rabbi who suddenly gains the magical ability to speak. That mysterious gift prompts him to question his master about his beliefs and to begin an adventure-filled voyage through Africa to explore the surrounding culture and its religions.
The Rabbi’s Cat is a unique specimen in itself, and it presents an intriguing opportunity for religious conversation. The rabbi is rarely seen practicing Jewish rituals, yet he frequently opens his Jewish books and takes a moment to study. When the cat begins to talk, he immediately takes issue with the creation story and its timing considering the archeological evidence that confirms that the world is much older than biblical stories would suggest. The cat cannot comprehend why the rabbi is unwilling to train him for his Bar Mitzvah, as he believes that his miraculous ability to speak should present him with the same opportunities as any other being brought up in a Jewish home.
The cat is far from pure, of course, since his main object is to attract the affection of Zlabya, the rabbi’s daughter and his cherished caretaker. His first words come after he has devoured the rabbi’s parrot, which he immediately denies. The rabbi chastises him and doubts his goodness because he begins his speech with a lie. His verbal capabilities are not unlimited, and he seems truly destitute when he realizes that the humans in his life can no longer comprehend him when he speaks. The portrayal of speech as a privilege rather than a right for an animal such as the cat is definitely thought-provoking.
The cat’s journey with his master starts when the rabbi learns that he must complete a French dictation to prove his language skills in order to be certified as the local religious authority. The rabbi’s lack of confidence, matched with the cat’s formidable intellectual prowess, prompts them to travel throughout Africa in search of answers. The rabbi picks up his good friend and distant relative, a Muslim Sheik, along the way. The friendship between the two sages of different religions is inspiring, and contrasts sharply with the aggression and intolerance they meet with as they interact with others during their trip.
The Rabbi’s Cat presents interesting philosophy and tackles its subject matter from a creative angle. Its beginning and middle are stronger than its end, as events transpire quickly and come to a peculiar and unsatisfying conclusion. Yet this is a worthwhile and notable cinematic achievement, and it would be refreshing to see Oscar voters reward it. It pairs well with Chico and Rita, a Cuban love story that managed a nomination last year. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine The Rabbi’s Cat finding a place among the likes of Brave, Frankenweenie, and Wreck-It Ralph. Call this one a dark horse with truly unknown chances.